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Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies

Vol. 58 (2017) Nos. 1–4, pp. 197–213

Preaching Apokatastasis:
St. Isaac the Syrian and
the Grammar of the Kingdom
Alvin F. Kimel, Jr.

How do we preach the gospel of Jesus Christ as good


news, as news that converts, liberates, and deifies sinners? One
answer immediately comes to mind – tell the biblical story.
Yet there are many ways to tell this story, and some of them
most decidedly do not convert, liberate, and deify. We need a
grammatical rule. Underlying the argument of my essay is a
simple premise: how we understand the conclusion of the gos-
pel story necessarily informs and shapes how we tell that story
from its beginning.
If we believe that the final destiny of human beings is ulti-
mately determined by the historical choices they make, we will
focus our homiletical energies on persuading our hearers to be-
lieve in Jesus, act righteously, and avoid sin. In this case,
Moses becomes our model of sound preaching:

See, I have set before you this day life and good, death
and evil. If you obey the commandments of the Lord
your God which I command you this day, by loving
the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by
keeping his commandments and his statutes and his
ordinances, then you shall live and multiply, and the
Lord your God will bless you in the land which you
are entering to take possession of it. But if your heart
turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away
to worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you
this day, that you shall perish; you shall not live long
198 Alvin F. Kimel, Jr.

in the land which you are going over the Jordan to en-
ter and possess. (Deut. 30:15–18, RSV)

All that the Christian preacher adds to the Mosaic exhortation


is a note of eschatological finality.
But if our faith is determined by the resurrection of Jesus
Christ, and thus by the final future that he freely grants, a dif-
ferent kind of preaching opens to us. Hope anticipates the Sa-
vior’s fulfillment of his promises and therefore authorizes the
preacher to proclaim the gospel as good and liberating news.
In the name of the risen Lord, by the power of his Spirit, the
preacher declares the paschal promises. The sermon or homily
becomes an eschatological gift and a salvific event.

St Isaac the Syrian and Apokatastasis

The seventh-century bishop and ascetic writer St. Isaac the


Syrian is celebrated as, above all, a mystical theologian of
divine love. He delights in speaking of the unconditional love
of God. No doubt this is why his discourses have captured the
hearts of so many believers over the centuries. As Metropo-
litan Hilarion Alfeyev writes, “In Isaac’s understanding, God
is above all immeasurable and boundless love. The conviction
that God is love dominates Isaac’s thought: it is the source of
his theological opinions, ascetical recommendations, and mys-
tical insights.”1 The love of the Creator fills the heart of this
great ascetic with wonder and awe, inciting him to rhapsodic
praise:

What profundity of richness, what mind and exalted


wisdom is God’s! What compassionate kindness and
abundant goodness belongs to the Creator! …In love
did He bring the world into existence; in love does He
guide it during this its temporal existence; in love is
He going to bring it to that wondrous transformed
state, and in love will the world be swallowed up in
the great mystery of Him who has performed all these
1
Hilarion Alfeyev, The Spiritual World of Isaac the Syrian (Kalamazoo,
Michigan: Cistercian Publications, 2000), 35–36.
Preaching Apokatastasis 199

things; in love will the whole course of the governance


of creation be finally comprised (2.38.1–2).2

The world begins in love, is ordered, maintained, and sustained


in love, and concludes in love. The divine love is absolute, un-
conditional, unmerited, gratuitous, extravagant, prodigal. It has
as its object every human and angelic being, the righteous and
the wicked. St. Isaac is clear: no one is “to the front or to the
back of God’s love,” since God has a “single equal love” for
saint and sinner alike (2.38.2).
Any suggestion that God might, in response to sin, alter
his attitude toward rational beings compromises divine immu-
tability and destroys the Love that God is. God is not a crea-
ture: he does not live in time, he is not affected by the events
of history, and he is not subject to the passions. “In the mind of
the Creator,” Isaac explains, “there exists a single even inten-
tion with respect to all rational beings, and there exists with
Him a single love and compassion which is spread out over all
creation, (a love) which is without alteration, timeless and
everlasting” (2.40.1). This divine love precedes God’s creation
of the world and does not change in response to the actions of
his creatures; it preveniently embraces both the righteous and
the unrighteous. “God has a single caring concern for those
who have fallen, just as much as for those who have not
fallen” (2.40.3).
If the omnibenevolent Deity is so promiscuous and indis-
criminate in his love, what then of his justice? Isaac famously
replies, “Do not call God just, for His justice is not manifest in
the things concerning you” (1.51.250).3 How can we call God
just, when we see the owner of the vineyard giving the same
wages to those who worked the entire day and to those who

2
Isaac of Nineveh (Isaac the Syrian), The Second Part, ed. and trans. Sebas-
tian Brock (Peeters: Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium, 1995).
Parenthetical citations of quotes from Isaac the Syrian beginning with Arabic
numeral 2 are from the above source and translation; parenthetical citations
beginning with Arabic numeral 1 are from the collection of homilies cited in
footnote 3, below.
3
Isaac the Syrian, The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian, trans.
Holy Transfiguration Monastery, rev. 2nd ed. (Boston, Massachusetts: Holy
Transfiguration Monastery, 2011).
200 Alvin F. Kimel, Jr.

worked only one hour? How can we call God just when we see
the father lavishing gifts upon his wayward son who had
thrown away his inheritance on women and wine? “Where,
then, is God’s justice?” asks Isaac, “for while we are sinners
Christ died for us!” (1.51.251).
Similarly, one may ask how the Last Judgment and the
“difficult matter of Gehenna” (2.39.1) are reconciled with this
boundless love. Christians have long believed that Holy Scrip-
ture teaches that God will reward the righteous with eternal
bliss and punish the wicked with eternal torment. St. Isaac,
however, rejects the claim that God punishes the wicked for all
eternity. In his opinion, this is a reduction of the God and
Father of Jesus Christ to the condition of a pagan deity. Thus
he declares that “God is not one who requites evil, but he sets
evil aright” (2.39.15). Love is incompatible with retaliation; it
is only concerned with “what is most advantageous in the fu-
ture: it examines what is to come, and not things that are past”
(2.39.17). Thus, we see how St. Isaac the Syrian reads scriptu-
ral passages about God’s justice and judgement through a her-
meneutic of love. He acknowledges that the scriptures some-
times appear to attribute wrath and vengeance to the Almighty
Creator. But all such references need to be interpreted
figuratively, in accordance with the gospel of Christ.
In Gehenna the reprobate suffer because they have been
made aware of how they have rejected their supreme good and
sinned against their truest friend, the Lord. Unlike other fa-
thers, such as St. John of Damascus, who denies that the dam-
ned have any remaining desire for God, St. Isaac sees them as
still possessing a small measure of desire. Thus, their suf-
ferings are caused in part by their regret and remorse, their
guilt, their “grief for love.” The Father never ceases to love the
damned nor to will their good and salvation – and that endu-
ring love is their damnation:

I say that even those who are tormented in Gehenna


are tormented with the torments of love. Torment for
love’s sake, that is, the torment of those who perceive
that they have sinned against love, is harder and more
bitter than the tortures of fear. The sufferings that take
Preaching Apokatastasis 201

hold of the heart through the sinning against love are


more acute than any other torture. It is absurd to think
that the sinners in Gehenna are deprived of the love of
the Creator. For love is a child of true knowledge and
it is said that it will be given to all people. Love works
with its force in a double way. It tortures those who
have sinned, as we see also in the world between
friends. And it gives delight to those who have kept its
decrees. Thus it is also in Gehenna. I say that the hard
tortures are grief for love. (1.27.201–202)4

The majority of St. Isaac’s discourses (the first part) were


translated into Greek and Latin in the late first millennium, and
on the basis of these translations, he has been interpreted as
affirming damnation as a noetic state of definitive and irrevo-
cable rejection of God. In other words, Isaac the Syrian has
been assimilated to the free-will model of everlasting perdi-
tion, and this understanding of St. Isaac the Syrian’s theology
of salvation and damnation remained the norm for over a
thousand years.
A reappraisal of St. Isaac’s theology became necessary,
however, when in 1983, Sebastian Brock discovered a Syriac
manuscript in the Bodleian Library of Oxford University con-
taining over forty discourses of St. Isaac, previously thought to
have been lost (the second part). Three of these homilies ad-
dress the theme of eschatology; in them St Isaac passionately
espouses the notion of apokatastasis, the final restoration of all
created beings. He most certainly believes that at the Last
Judgment God will condemn the impenitent and depraved to
an existence of torment, but it will ultimately prove to be pur-
gative and temporary. The damned may be “scourged by the
scourge of love,” but the scourging is not forever! In a hidden
mystery of grace God will find a way to save all:

I am of the opinion that He is going to manifest some


wonderful outcome, a matter of immense and ineffable

4
Translated in Patrik Hagman, The Asceticism of Isaac of Nineveh (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 2010), 202–203. This passage is found in the
Transfiguration Monastery translation on p.266.
202 Alvin F. Kimel, Jr.

compassion on the part of the glorious Creator, with


respect to the ordering of this difficult matter of (Ge-
henna’s) torment: out of it the wealth of His love and
power and wisdom will become known all the more –
and so will the insistent might of the waves of his
goodness. (2.39.6)

According to St. Isaac, God does not punish to no purpose:


he chastises only to purify and liberate. The eternal Creator did
not create hell, but foreknowing humanity’s fall into sin, he
has incorporated Gehenna into his redemptive purposes. “The
Kingdom and Gehenna,” St Isaac avers, “are matters belonging
to mercy, which were conceived of in their essence by God as
a result of His eternal goodness. … That we should say or
think that the matter is not full of love and mingled with com-
passion would be an opinion full of blasphemy and insult to
our Lord God” (2.39.22). Borrowing a phrase from Sergius
Bulgakov, we can describe St. Isaac the Syrian’s conception of
Gehenna as a “universal purgatory;” the punishment of Ge-
henna is reparative, remedial, and therapeutic.5 God’s love and
mercy will ultimately triumph in the hearts of even the most
hardened sinners.
The Syrian ascetic does not speculate on how God might
effect the conversion of the damned. Apparently he did not
feel the need to offer an explanation. Rather, his teaching is
governed by an adamantine hope, based in scripture and mys-
tical experience, which trumps all other considerations. As
Patrik Hagman notes, “ultimately, Isaac bases his belief on
hope on his firm trust in God as a loving father. Gehenna was
created with our future good in mind.”6 Despite hell, and even
because of hell, the final destiny of humanity will be glorious;

5
For creative speculation on how God might accomplish the eschatological
conversion of the wicked, see Sergius Bulgakov, The Bride of the Lamb,
trans. Boris Jakim (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2002), chap. 8;
Thomas Talbott, The Inescapable Love of God, 2nd ed. (Eugene, Oregon:
Cascade Books, 2014), 181–189; and George MacDonald, “The Last Far-
thing,” in the series Unspoken Sermons, available online at http://www.on-
line-literature.com/george-macdonald/unspoken-sermons/18/, accessed April
7, 2018.
6
Hagman, Asceticism of Isaac of Nineveh, 202.
Preaching Apokatastasis 203

the grace and mercy of God will ultimately overcome all resis-
tance, and God will be all in all.7 It would be blasphemous,
suggests Isaac the Syrian, to think otherwise.8

The Proclamatory Rule of the Gospel

What difference does the idea of apokatastasis, of a uni-


versal restoration, make to the preaching of the gospel in the
liturgy? The answer to this question is not clear, even to the
most fervent advocates of this ‘greater hope’. On one hand,
Origen believed that hope in a universal restoration should
only be shared with the spiritually mature, and St. Gregory of
Nazianzus appears to have been even more reticent. St
Gregory of Nyssa, on the other hand, incorporated the idea of
apokatastasis into his public teaching. So what difference does
apokatastasis make? I argue that it can make all the difference
in the world, since how we understand the ultimate conclusion
of the gospel story will necessarily inform and shape how we
tell that story.
More than a decade ago, I retired from parochial ministry,
and suddenly found that, instead of having to deliver Sunday
sermons, I was “privileged” to listen to them. I have now heard
dozens of homilies proclaimed by Roman Catholic, Maronite,
and Eastern Orthodox bishops and priests. Almost without
exception, they share one common feature – exhortation,
specifically, exhortation embedded within a conditionalist lin-

7
See Sebastian Brock, “St Isaac the Syrian and His Understanding of Uni-
versal Salvation and of ‘the Mystery of Gehenna (Hell)’,” Scribd, accessed
April 7, 2018, https://www.scribd.com/document/235764859/St-Isaac-the-
Syrian-and-his-understanding-of-universal-salvation. See also Hagman, As-
ceticism of Isaac of Nineveh, chap. 8, and Alfeyev, Spiritual World, chap. 8.
8
For over a millennia Orthodox and Catholic Christians have interpreted the
Fifth Ecumenical Council as dogmatically excluding all expressions of the
universalist hope. Strong arguments, however, may be raised against this
interpretation. See, for example, my article “Apokatastasis: The Heresy that
Never Was,” Eclectic Orthodoxy (blog), accessed April 7, 2018, https://
afkimel.wordpress.com/2015/05/18/apocatastasis-the-heresy-that-never-was-
2/. Ilaria Ramelli has recently demonstrated that within first millennium
Christianity the universalist hope was stronger and more widespread than
previously recognized: Ilaria Ramelli, The Christian Doctrine of Apokatas-
tasis (Boston: Brill, 2013).
204 Alvin F. Kimel, Jr.

guistic structure. Orthodox and Catholic preachers alike


appear to believe that their principal homiletical task is to urge
their hearers to behave differently. By and large, they simply
skip the gospel and focus entirely on admonition. Eastern
preachers tend to emphasize ascetical practice, while Latin
preachers show more concern for ethical behavior, but the
message is the same – work harder! To borrow the language of
the sixteenth-century Reformers, Orthodox and Catholic pas-
tors preach the law.
The discourse of law shares a common transactional struc-
ture: if x, then y. It can be presented in positive terms of
reward and merit (if you get straight A’s on your report card,
your mother and I will give you a new car; if you mow my
lawn and trim the hedges, I will pay you $50) or negative
terms of penalty and punishment (if you do not turn in your
term paper by the end of the semester, you will fail the course;
if you arrive late to work one more time, I will terminate your
employment). These and similar pledges make the outcome
contingent upon the performance of the one to whom the pro-
mise is directed. They present to us a future which we our-
selves must actualize: if we fulfill the specified conditions, or
fail to fulfill them, we will bring about the promised result,
whether it be reward or punishment.
We are all intimately acquainted with this kind of transac-
tional communication. Law is the primary discourse of our po-
litical, commercial, and judicial systems. We determine our
futures by the contracts we make. Law functions as demand
upon our performance, and upon this performance falls the
weight of the utterance. Once a conditional promise is spoken
to us, we had best get busy, either to obtain or avoid the conse-
quent. A conditional promise, in other words, presents the fu-
ture to us as command, obligation, and threat. It structures how
we experience the fallen world we inhabit. Hence it is not
surprising that moralism and legalism thoughtlessly dominate
the preaching of the Church.
Similar to conditional promises, unconditional promises
also exhibit a characteristic linguistic pattern: because x, there-
fore y. Here I cite examples with explicit Christian content:
because Jesus is risen, your future will be glorious, despite
Preaching Apokatastasis 205

your sins and infidelities; because Christ is returning in glory,


your life enjoys ultimate meaning and all your good dreams
will be fulfilled; because you have died to sin in baptism and
been reborn in the Spirit of the kingdom, you are now free to
live in faithfulness and love. Just as a conditional promise po-
sits a specific kind of future, so too does an unconditional pro-
mise present a particular vision of the future; but these two
kinds of utterance impact our lives in remarkably different
ways. When God speaks a conditional promise to us, the bur-
den of its fulfillment falls totally upon us. Existentially, it does
not matter if we are also told that God will help us by his
grace; what matters is doing, or not doing, what needs to be
done – this alone contains the difference between heaven and
hell. But when God speaks unconditional promise, he assumes
responsibility for our future, independent of our performance;
he is the promise’s guarantor. In the unconditional promise
God presents the future to us as an eschatological gift, appre-
hended and grasped by faith.
“If you repent of your sins, God will forgive you,” the
preacher declares. On the face of it, the pronouncement is
clear-cut. Divine absolution is offered on the basis of the
fulfillment of a prior condition. If we wish to obtain reconci-
liation with our Creator, then we had best put our noses to the
grindstone and get on with the work of repentance. James B.
Torrance calls this legal repentance.9 Of course, somebody
will need to explain to us what repentance involves – but that
is incidental. The critical point is that the responsibility and
burden of fulfilling the stipulated condition lies on our shoul-
ders. Thus, every moment contains the threat of failure: What
if I am unable to achieve a whole-hearted repentance? Will
God forgive me? If I die in mortal sin, can God forgive?
But now consider the difference when forgiveness is dec-
lared in the form of an unconditional promise: “Because Jesus
has borne your sins upon the cross, God forgives you; there-
fore, repent and live in the Holy Spirit.” Suddenly everything

9
Torrance discusses the difference between legal and evangelical repentance
in several of his published essays, as well as in James B. Torrance, Worship,
Community and the Triune God of Grace (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-
Varsity Press, 1997).
206 Alvin F. Kimel, Jr.

changes. By this word God raises us from the condemnation of


sin and grants us a future no longer bound to the past. He en-
ters our lives as a liberating power. While in any response to a
conditional promise our activity is directed to the fulfillment of
the specific work demanded of us, in response to the uncondi-
tional promise our lives may now be lived in the freedom of
the Spirit. Repentance is no longer a task that we must ac-
complish in order to obtain absolution: it is the fruit of a freely
bestowed absolution. In other words, forgiveness is logically
prior to our penitential response. Torrance calls this evangeli-
cal repentance. Life in Christ thus becomes a joy lived in
thanksgiving and tears, discipleship, holy works, ascetical dis-
cipline, and the worship and praise of God. At every moment
we are surrounded and upheld by the divine mercy. We were
lost but have been found, blind but now we see, dead but now
alive in the power of the kingdom.
Immediately, however, our minds raise a host of objec-
tions to this vision of salvation. I am acquainted, I think, with
most of them, and believe that they boil down to a single con-
cern: if God declares me unconditionally forgiven, does that
mean that I am free to disobey the commandments of God with
impunity? Or, to state the same concern in its universal scope,
will all be saved? Does this not do violence to human free-
will? Surely there is something we must do? In a descriptive
sense there is, of course, something we must do. If I close my
heart to my lover, I will never be able to enjoy the gift of her
love; so too, if I refuse to repent of my sin, I will never be able
to experience the freedom of the sons of God. This is all true
descriptively, but when this description is translated into pres-
cription, the gospel becomes a tyrannical voice that leads us
into either self-righteousness or despair. The oft-rehearsed ob-
jections to the completely unconditional nature of the divine
love ultimately drive us back to the evangelical faith of St.
Isaac of Nineveh.
So what difference should apokatastasis make to the chur-
chly preaching of the gospel? Above all, it should encourage
and authorize pastors to proclaim the good news of Jesus
Christ precisely as good news. No more qualifications and
compromises; no more ifs, buts, and maybes. The gospel is a
Preaching Apokatastasis 207

message of triumphant hope, or it is not gospel at all. Jesus is


risen! He has transcended death and destroyed the power of
Satan. In our fallen world, all of our promises ultimately turn
into dust and ashes – we cannot pledge a future we do not pos-
sess. At any point death may intervene and nullify our commit-
ments. But, unlike us, Jesus of Nazareth does possess the final
and true future, by his paschal victory over death. Only the
risen Christ can make an unconditional promise and mean it
unconditionally. In the words of Robert W. Jenson: “If Jesus
has death behind him, then his intention for his followers, de-
fined by his particular life and death, must utterly triumph,
there being no longer anything to stop him.”10
If Jesus were Attila the Hun or Joseph Stalin, the resurrec-
tion would be horrifying news indeed; but the resurrection of
the Nazarene is the best, most wonderful, brilliant, and trans-
forming news because of who he was and eternally is. Neither
death nor life, neither principality nor power, can defeat the
love by which Jesus the Messiah lived and died. His intentions
for the Church, his intentions for all of humanity and the
cosmos, and his intentions for each of us as individual persons,
must and will triumph.

Jesus lived and then died. Therefore we have a defini-


tion of what it means to be Jesus, we know what he is:
he is the one who lived wholly in the hope he had to
bring his fellows, giving himself to that hope even to
death. If despite death he now lives, then this self-gi-
ving is not only an item of the past to be remembered,
but a surprise in the future to be expected. And if that,
then not merely one item of the future, but the last fu-
ture, the conclusion of the human enterprise. For death
is already behind him, and nothing can any more limit
his hopeful self-giving; it will necessarily encompass
all men and all man’s history.11

10
Robert W. Jenson, “On the Problem(s) of Scriptural Authority,” Interpre-
tation 31 (1977): 238.
11
Robert W. Jenson, Story and Promise (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1973),
43–44. This theme has been a constant in Jenson’s theology over the de-
cades. “That Jesus lives means that his love, perfected at the cross, is now
208 Alvin F. Kimel, Jr.

The preaching of the gospel is simply this – the annunciation


of the resurrection, with all of its consequences and implica-
tions for our lives.12
Eastern Christians know this. At the Matins of Pascha we
declaim the words of St. John Chrysostom:

Enjoy ye all the feast of faith: Receive ye all the riches


of loving-kindness. Let no one bewail his poverty, for
the universal kingdom has been revealed. Let no one
weep for his iniquities, for pardon has shown forth
from the grave. Let no one fear death, for the Savior’s
death has set us free.13

The indicatives of the gospel precede the imperatives; the


evangelical narrative envelops all ethical and ascetical exhorta-
tions. Pastors may dare to boldly promise the kingdom, for the
crucified one lives and has given himself as surety.
But not only does Jesus guarantee the promise of eschato-
logical fulfillment; he is, and must be, its ultimate preacher as
well. Every address involves someone’s personal presence. In
this paper, for example, I am intruding into your life with my
idiosyncratic, and perhaps controversial, reflections on preach-
ing. But were I to stand before you and unconditionally pro-
mise you eternal salvation in the kingdom of the incarnate Son,
then it could not be me alone addressing you. I cannot rightly
make such a pledge, for I cannot realize and consummate its
promised future. Only the one who has death behind him can
do so; only the conqueror of death may bestow the eschaton.

active to surprise us. That Jesus lives means that there is a subject who has
us as his objects, and who wills our good in a freedom beyond our predic-
tion. Indeed, fully reliable love can only be the resurrected life of one who
has died for the beloved ones. If I commit myself in love, I may die of it. If I
do not, my love remains uncertain; if I do, it is lost – unless I rise again.
When the gospel proclaims actual unconditional love, it proclaims a specific,
individual love, the love that is the actuality of the risen Jesus. No one else
can love unconditionally as does the Lord; not even the church can so love
her members or they one another.” Robert W. Jenson, Systematic Theology
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 1:199.
12
See Joshua Genig, Viva Vox (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015).
13
St. John Chrysostom, “The Paschal Sermon,” Orthodox Church in Ameri-
ca, accessed April 7, 2018, https://oca.org/fs/sermons/the-paschal-sermon.
Preaching Apokatastasis 209

When the preacher dares to proclaim the gospel in its radical


power, there the voice of Jesus Christ is heard. The making of
the eschatological promise must be his act, his presence, his
Word, his kingdom. “If the gospel promise is true and uncon-
ditional,” Jenson writes, “then the event of the living word, of
one person speaking the gospel to another, is the locus of
God’s reality for us. Where is God? He is where one man is
promising good unconditionally to another, in Jesus’ name.”14
Or as our Lord himself has taught us: “where two or three are
gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Matt
18:20, RSV)
I propose the following grammatical or hermeneutical rule
for our preaching: so proclaim the story of Jesus Christ that it
elicits from our hearers nothing less than faith or offense. Or,
to put this rule in its most succinct form: proclaim the gospel
in the mode of unconditional promise. Robert Jenson calls this
a meta-linguistic rule;15 George Lindbeck, a meta-theological
rule.16 Either way, this rule does not specify the content of our
preaching – that content is given in the scriptures and the
sacred tradition of the Church. The rule, rather, prescribes and
instructs how to rightly proclaim this content: preach the
gospel of the crucified and risen Son of God, not as law and
obligation, but as a word that liberates sinners from the bon-
dage of sin, conquers despair, and empowers believers to live
lives of holiness, prayer, and radical discipleship. The proc-
lamatory rule invites preachers to speak into the world the
kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Some may protest that they have never heard such a her-
meneutical rule before. Lindbeck replies to this objection by
pointing out that “rules can be followed in practice without any

14
Robert W. Jenson and Eric W. Gritsch, Lutheranism: The Theological
Movement and Its Writings (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976), 102. See
also Robert W. Jenson, Visible Words: The Interpretation and Practice of
Christian Sacraments (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978), 6: “The gospel
promise is unconditional, for behind it stands the victor over death. Just so, it
is the word of God, who has all the future.”
15
Jenson and Gritsch, Lutheranism, 42–44.
16
George Lindbeck, “Article IV and Lutheran/Roman Catholic Dialogue,” in
The Church in a Postliberal Age (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 42–43.
210 Alvin F. Kimel, Jr.

explicit or theoretical knowledge of them.”17 For example,


Homer was a supreme master of Ionic Greek long before the
grammatical rules of the language were codified, showing how
one can speak a language well without being able to articulate
the rules governing that language. Hence it is at least possible
– and, I would argue, highly probable – that from Pentecost on
Christians have lived, celebrated, preached, and sacramentally
enacted the unconditionality of grace, despite the absence of an
explicit regulative canon. It is also certain that at various times
and places pastors and preachers have compromised the gospel
by reducing the free gift of salvation to a work that must be
earned or transactionally acquired.

Preaching the Kingdom

In conclusion, it is worthwhile to consider the proclamato-


ry rule of the gospel in light of the eschatological nature of the
Holy Eucharist. In recent decades, Fr. Alexander Schmemann
and Metropolitan John Zizioulas have made powerful argu-
ments for a recovery of the eschatological dimension of the
Eucharist. Schmemann speaks of the Divine Liturgy as the
“sacrament of the Kingdom,” while Zizioulas uses language of
“the icon of the Kingdom.” Zizioulas quotes the words of St.
Maximus the Confessor: “For the things of the Old Testament
are the shadow; those of the New Testament are the image.
The truth is the state of things to come.”18 The Church lives
from this future; the kingdom that is to come causes the Eu-
charist and confers upon it its true being.
The Divine Liturgy does not merely commemorate the
events of past history: it blesses, invokes, and anticipates the
future; it even remembers the future. “Blessed is the Kingdom
of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” the ce-
lebrant intones at the beginning of the liturgy. At the Great
Entrance he declares to the assembly: “May the Lord God re-
member all of you in His kingdom, now and forever and to the
ages of ages.” And the anaphora of St John Chrysostom stri-

17
Lindbeck, “Article IV,” 43.
18
John Zizioulas, The Eucharistic Communion and the World (New York:
T&T Clark, 2011), 44.
Preaching Apokatastasis 211

kingly recollects not only the cross and resurrection of Christ


but also his “second and glorious Coming.”
In the Mystical Supper the risen and ascended Son comes
to the Church from his eternal futurity; or, to make the same
point in different imagery, the Church is lifted up by the Spirit
into the heavens and gathered into the messianic banquet. The
kingdom is Jesus Christ, risen, glorified, and returning. Ziziou-
las elaborates:

What we experience in the divine Eucharist is the end


time making itself present to us now. The Eucharist is
not a repetition or continuation of the past, or just one
event amongst others, but it is the penetration of the
future into time. The Eucharist is entirely live, and ut-
terly new; there is no element of the past about it. The
Eucharist is the incarnation live, the crucifixion live,
the resurrection live, the ascension live, the Lord’s
coming again and the day of judgment, live.19

Metropolitan John makes the same point elsewhere more suc-


cinctly: “In the Eucharist, we move within the space of the age
to come, of the Kingdom.”20
In the same way as the liturgy makes the kingdom present
now, the proclamation of the gospel in the mode of uncon-
ditional promise means speaking the language of the parousia.
The words of the preacher become words of prophecy bearing
the living reality of the eschaton. The gospel is nothing less
than the final judgment proleptically let loose into history. It
thus confronts us with decisive authority, an authority not of
law and condemnation but of blessing, forgiveness, transfor-
mation, and hope – the authority of apokatastasis.
When the preacher obeys the hermeneutical rule, he moves
from talking about salvation to giving salvation. This move
from second-order discourse to present-tense proclamation is

19
John D. Zizioulas, Lectures in Christian Dogmatics, ed. Douglas H.
Knight (New York: T & T Clark, 2008), 155. Also see Alexandre Turincev,
“An Approach to Orthodox Eschatology,” Greek Orthodox Theological Re-
view 58 (2013): 57–77.
20
Zizioulas, Eucharistic Communion, 57.
212 Alvin F. Kimel, Jr.

crucial. As long as the preacher remains within the mode of


description and explanation, the kerygmatic Word remains un-
spoken. Every homily is of course informed by the preacher’s
exegesis of the appointed biblical text, but eventually he needs
to move from saying words about God to actually speaking
good news in the name of God.21
As an analogy, consider the difference between the lan-
guage of lovers and the language of psychologists. Psycholo-
gists can tell us all about what lovers experience, what they
feel and do, and how love changes and energizes them, all in a
quite informative way. But when you are in love, this kind of
information is not what you want to hear from your beloved.
What you want to hear, what you need to hear, is “I love you.”
This simple declaration makes all the difference. In the same
way, preaching the gospel occurs when the message is trans-
formed into salvific deed and act. The Word of God effects
what it announces and does what it proclaims. By the uncondi-
tional promise of Christ Jesus, the preacher converts, justifies,
regenerates, illumines, and deifies his hearers.22 He communi-
cates salvation. He does not simply speak about salvation – he
does it; he performs it. By the gospel of resurrection, the
preacher re-creates the world. Sinners are absolved, saints are
made, new life is bestowed. The homily thus becomes an es-
chatological event that slays the old man and gives birth to the
new. “The proclamation of the Word,” Schmemann writes,

is a sacramental act par excellence because it is a


transforming act. It transforms the human words of the
Gospel into the Word of God and the manifestation of
the Kingdom. And it transforms the man who hears the

21
See Gerhard Forde, Theology Is for Proclamation (Minneapolis: Fortress
Press, 1990).
22
“The [meta-linguistic] instruction is not to induce, or manipulate, conver-
sion by our discourse; the hearers’ conversion is to be accomplished as the
act of gospel-speaking itself. Conversion is a change in the communication
situation within which every person lives; a proper sermon or baptism liturgy
or penance liturgy just is that change.” Robert W. Jenson, “Holy Spirit,” in
Christian Dogmatics, ed. Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson (Phila-
delphia: Fortress Press, 1984), 2:134.
Preaching Apokatastasis 213

Word into a receptacle of the Word and a temple of the


Spirit.23

When, contrary to this mode of proclaiming the gospel, a


preacher presents the good news of Christ in the form of con-
ditional promises and transactions, he violates the eschatologi-
cal reality of the Eucharist. It does not matter if he does so for
moralistic or ascetical reasons. The result is the same – the
good news is reduced to law, and law cannot open faith or bes-
tow new life. The gospel tolerates no conditions, for in the
kingdom there is no longer time for the fulfillment of condi-
tions. The eschaton is coming and is come. In response there
can only be faith or offense. We either find ourselves celebra-
ting the gift of eternal life or cursing the uncreated radiance.
Jesus is risen! He comes to us in his Word in utter grace,
infinite charity, unmerited forgiveness, startling generosity,
omnipotent benevolence, transforming holiness, deifying
triumph – this is the good news we are commissioned to dec-
lare; it is this good news the world yearns to hear, needs to
hear. The world is fluent in law. Anyone can speak it; every-
one already does. Only the Church of the risen Son may un-
conditionally promise the consummation of all in the One who
will be all in all.

23
Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World (New York: St. Vladi-
mir’s Seminary Press, 1973), 33.